5 May 2023
The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman review – a pacy Elizabethan adventure
The Suede bassist’s alternative-history romp through the theatres and over the rooftops of Elizabethan London is full of charm and vigour
The Ghost Theatre begins with a London rooftop chase worthy of Mission: Impossible. Our young heroine, Shay, hurtles above Eastcheap and St Peter’s Hill, St Paul’s Church a landmark in the near distance. “She came down with a crash, sending a flock of pigeons skywards in a soft explosion of feathers. They spread like a fountain and she repeated the catechism under her breath: The gods are birds and the birds are gods. She let its cadence guide her feet. The gods – step – are birds – step – and the birds – step – are gods – leap.”
In his debut, 2020’s The Ruins, Mat Osman proved himself to be a vivid and imaginative writer. That was the story of two brothers, a 21st-century tale of murder and mystery that embraced the fantastical as it moved through London, Los Angeles, Las Vegas. It was published just before the first Covid lockdown, when our collective attention was understandably elsewhere. But Osman, bassist and founding member of the British band Suede, knows something about perseverance. His second novel is another wild ride, a vigorous adventure that reinforces the sense of an author with energy and wit to spare.
The Ghost Theatre is set in Elizabethan London, and even features a significant cameo from the Virgin Queen herself. And yet it can’t quite be described as a historical novel, but more as a blend of fantasy and historical flavour. Be warned: if you believe, along with the late Hilary Mantel, that historical fiction should be rigorous in its accuracy as far as that accuracy is possible, this may not be the novel for you. For starters, Shay is an “Aviscultan”, one of a group of outcasts in post-Reformation England who worship birds and risk their lives to free them from captivity. In one effective scene early in the novel, her tribe is described observing a murmuration of starlings, “the shape of candle smoke or that twist of stars that lights clear nights”.
Her faith makes her a fugitive, one of the outcasts of London, like those who form the revolutionary theatre troupe that lies at the centre of this novel. Shay falls for a young man called Nonesuch; “a name made of stone and glass”, Osman writes – a phrase with a nice ring but which, on second reading, made me wonder: why stone and glass? The danger with fine prose is that there can be more sound than substance, and occasionally Osman gets carried away with the power of his own voice. The novel as a whole is a picaresque romance, as Nonesuch and Shay put on their plays, elude their enemies and revel in or revile the textures of Elizabethan London. The flaw is that its hectic pace never really allows anything to settle, any character to take root. The Aviscultan belief system, for instance, doesn’t seem fully built into a cosmology that the reader can invest in.
That said, there’s much enjoyment to be had here, as an escape into a version of London’s past that, while it may never quite have existed, offers plenty of theatrical pleasures.
The Ghost Theatre by Mat Osman is published by Bloomsbury (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/ ... 3RrD5JCQO4
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